We dig truffles
A trip to Oregon unearths a rich domestic variety, plus a trove of dishes
Think truffles are limited to European soil? Guess again, my fungi-loving friends. I recently attended the Oregon Truffle Festival in Eugene and saw firsthand that the Pacific Northwest is teeming with the fragrant treasures.
Oregon truffles, the white variety and black, offer differing, hard-to-describe aroma profiles. The easier-to-find whites are sweetly musky, earthy with notes of cinnamon and vanilla. The Oregon blacks, buried deeper in the soil, have a musky scent that some say has green apple or pineapple overtones.
Some came to the festival to train their dogs to be truffle hunters. Some came to attend a growers forum and cultivation seminar. Some, including me and 10 food-loving pals, came to eat and learn how to cook with truffles. And we wanted to experience the hunt.
With our guide, Toby Esthay, and his truffle-hunting dog, Abba, we gathered at the edge of a dense Douglas fir forest in the Lorane Valley, about 20 miles southeast of Eugene. Armed with four-prong rakes and enthusiasm that bordered on euphoria, we followed Abba's nose into the dense trees in search of white truffles.
Part black Lab, part beagle, the free-on-Craigslist dog quickly clowned his way to the first truffle. Abba pawed the duff with gusto, then dug, his white-tipped tail wagging like an overwound metronome. He knew a tiny chunk of cheese from Esthay's pocket would be his reward.
Esthay commanded Abba away from the spot and dug up the knobby, dirt-speckled prize with a well-worn soup spoon.
Some stayed with Abba, but most of us set out to search individually. Using our rakes, we pulled at the decaying leaves that lined the forest floor surrounding the tree trunks. We all found white truffles, but a gleeful holler was heard whenever someone found a really big one.
I think a big part of what fueled the fervor was the delectable, truffle-studded dishes we'd been consuming at the festival in the days before our hunt. Each meal offered irresistible dishes that showcased Oregon's truffle bounty.
One such feast took place in the Willamette Valley at Pfeiffer Winery, one of the oldest vineyards in Oregon. Pfeiffer's high-end, low-production pinot noir and pinot gris graced our menu, including its 2007 pinot noir that was served to President Obama at his pre-inaugural dinner.
John Sundstrom, named best chef Pacific Northwest in 2007 by the James Beard Foundation, taught a truffle-centric cooking class before we sat down to devour the three-course lunch he prepared.
Sundstrom, chef and owner of Lark, the acclaimed restaurant in Seattle, started with a stunning amuse-bouche, Ricotta Gnudi with Butternut Squash and Oregon Black Truffles.
The oval gnudi, small gnocchi-like dumplings made primarily of ricotta (instead of potatoes), were augmented with Parmigiano-Reggiano, egg and grated Oregon black truffles. Once made into balls, they were rolled in semolina to form ovals.
While the gnudi quickly cooked in boiling water, he prepared the butternut squash-based sauce that would accompany them.
He explained that his stock, the backbone of the sauce, was flavored with the rinds of Parmigiano-Reggiano. He reserves the rinds and stores them in his freezer to use as needed. He uses the rinds much as he would chicken bones, cooking them with water, white wine, bay leaf, mirepoix (roughly chopped onion, celery and carrot), plus garlic and thyme. The whole shebang is strained before use.
For the sauce, he heated a little extra-virgin olive oil and softened some minced garlic until it was starting to turn golden. A splash of white wine, the cheese-rind stock and peeled-and-diced squash were added. It bubbled until the squash was tender. He added butter and chopped Italian parsley.
Tasting the sauce, he added salt and freshly ground black pepper. He pronounced the sauce "pretty great," in a way that brought a big laugh from the crowd. White doves caged at the back of the dining room joined in, their cooing setting the backdrop for even more laughter.
The sauce was plated next to the gnudi; a pinch of Parmigiano-Reggiano garnished the top of each gnudi, along with a crown of finely shaved Oregon white truffles. Delicious.
Perfectly cooked hanger steak was accompanied by Provençal sunchokes. Sunchokes (also called sunflower chokes or Jerusalem artichokes) are knobby roots that look something like ginger. They taste nutty and subtly sweet. Sundstrom cooked them in duck fat, along with shallots, garlic, lavender and thyme. Oh, and Oregon black truffles. Those were the best sunchokes I've ever tasted.
Dessert? Cream puffs with black truffle cream, dark chocolate sauce and a garnish of finely grated black truffles. Oregon truffles, of course.
I checked out Oregon truffle prices at Marche Provisions in Eugene. Oregon white truffles were $6.50 per ounce; Oregon black truffles were $12 per ounce. Online prices are higher, but still only a small fraction of the cost for Old World truffles. The cost of Old World truffles is so high, few home cooks pop for the price.
Many argue that the taste and fragrance of New World truffles don't compare with those found in Europe. I say the domestic beauties are a great place to start.
SUNDSTROM'S PROVENÇAL SUNCHOKES
Yield: six servings
1 pound sunchokes, well scrubbed, dried, cut into large chunks
1⁄2 cup melted duck fat
2 shallots, peeled, thinly sliced
8 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1⁄4 cup thinly sliced Oregon black truffles
1⁄4 bunch lavender, chopped
1⁄4 bunch fresh thyme, leaves only
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a roasting pan, toss sunchokes with duck fat, shallots, garlic, salt and pepper. Roast until tender and a little crisp, about 25 minutes. Add truffles, lavender and thyme. Toss. Taste and adjust seasoning, if needed. Serve.
Source: John Sundstrom, chef-owner of Lark in Seattle
Yield: 25 to 30 gnudi, six servings as a first course
1 pound fresh ricotta, drained
1 cup dry spinach purée, prepared from 20 ounces frozen or fresh spinach, see cook's notes
1⁄4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano, plus more for garnish
6 tablespoons dry fine bread crumbs, plus more if needed
1⁄4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper, a generous amount
Cook's notes: If using frozen spinach, start thawing it a day before making the pasta. Take the frozen block(s) out of the box, place in colander over a bowl and let it thaw completely and drain it for a day in the refrigerator, or overnight at room temperature. Squeeze by handfuls to press out as much liquid as possible. If using fresh spinach, try to start a day ahead. Wash it thoroughly, remove stems and cook for five minutes or more in a large volume of boiling water. Remove, drain, cool in colander. Squeeze out as much liquid as possible. If possible, let it drain and dry in colander overnight. Squeeze spinach again the next day. To purée spinach, tear spinach and place in food processor; purée it thoroughly, scraping it off the sides.
Start heating a large pot of salted water.
Stir ricotta and egg together in large bowl. Mix in spinach, cheese, bread crumbs, 1⁄4 cup flour, salt and pepper; knead lightly.
Test the consistency of the dough by scooping out a heaping tablespoon, forming it into a ball and flouring it. Gently drop into boiling water; if it does not hold its shape and rise to the surface of the water within a minute, add more bread crumbs to your dough.
When you have the right consistency, shape all dough into balls a little smaller than golf balls and roll them lightly in flour. Place in single layer on baking sheet covered with parchment paper.
Gently drop each gnudi, one by one, into boiling water and cook for about two to three minutes, until they rise to the top and come to a rolling boil. To test for doneness, scoop out a ball with a slotted spoon and press it with your fingers; the dumpling dough when cooked should bounce back, leaving no indentation. Top with freshly grated cheese before serving. Serve with Sundstrom's Butternut Squash and Oregon White Truffle Sauce (recipe follows).
Source: "Lidia's Family Table" by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich (Knopf, $35)
SUNDSTROM'S BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND OREGON WHITE TRUFFLE SAUCE
Yield: about 1-2⁄3 cups
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 teaspoons minced garlic
4 tablespoons dry white wine
1 cup Parmigiano stock, see cook's notes
1 cup butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1⁄4-inch dice
2 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
Kosher salt or sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Garnish: thinly shaved Oregon white truffles
Cook's notes: Chef Sundstrom says he uses the rinds of Parmigiano-Reggiano to make a flavorful stock. He uses the rinds much as you would use chicken bones to make a chicken stock. He cooks the rinds with water, white wine, bay leaf, mirepoix (roughly chopped onion, celery and carrot), plus garlic and thyme. The stock is strained before use.
In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic starts to turn golden (do not brown). Add wine, stock and squash. Turn heat to medium-high. Simmer two minutes or until squash is barely tender. Remove squash with slotted spoon; reduce liquid by half in volume. Off heat, add butter and parsley; stir just enough to combine. Return squash. Toss. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Spoon sauce on plate around each serving of gnudi. Top each gnudi with a pinch of Parmigiano. Top with truffle shavings. Serve.
Source: John Sundstrom, chef-owner of Lark in Seattle